There are two articles, specifically, that brought this (these) posts to the fore. One for good reasons and bad comments, and the other for not so good reasons. Ultimately, they teach us the same lesson. We cannot comment upon or dictate the actions of others, when we have not shared their experiences – that applies to the characters in books and the women who read them. Let’s start with article one in this blog, and work our way around in a blog to follow.
This amazing, honest piece by Erin Bailey is a stark reminder of the threat of harassment, and more, that women face on a daily basis. Having lived in Boston myself for four years, I am well aware of the trials she illustrates in the article. She is not walking through dangerous neighborhoods at night. She is out running on a sunny day. She is going to 7/11 to buy ice cream. These are things we all do. (Or, at least, try to do.) And yet, she experiences harassment time and again. The article is a blunt, and necessarily so. These are the types of things that every single woman deals with in her life.
I should not have read the comments. Oh dear Lord, have we not learned our lesson? (I once played a game to see if I could find a webpage without a single negative comment. I gave up when I found someone mad about a waterfall at sunset.) The truth is, I was sort of itching for a fight, and I found one.
There were the regular “fem-nazis warning” and the like. Mostly, men claim she’s fishing or looking for attention and, the ever-enduring, don’t run in just a sports bra, then. But one series of comments made the rage just boil over. This male writer said that, as women who fear, we should take it into our own hands and learn self-defense and proper weapon training, rather than spend our lives living with the fear. Instead of complaining about it, he wrote, we should simply do something.
Is that not victim blaming at its most delightful? Let me be clear – implying that a woman is sitting around being afraid absolutely undermines the true danger that women face every single day, be it in a big city or a small town. I am five-fucking-two, and soaking wet, a man could pluck me off the street and throw me in his car like a sack of potatoes. Saying that it is up to us, rather than working towards the edification of a society that blames women for their own safety (and lackthereof), instead of the actual criminals and street harassers, is base victim blaming. Already, we hold our keys in our hands, our phones pre-dialed to the police when we walk home at night. I used to close up at the school library at eleven and walk the two mile trek home when I lived in Boston, and I never put both headphones in, always walked in the light, kept my mom or dad on the phone most nights.
I am hyper vigilant of the men around me when I am alone. I never respond to street-harassers because out of fear they might retaliate. As I put to my dad, after being shouted at on my walk to work – through a nice suburban neighborhood, that they ‘liked the way I walked in those pants’, I am ten feet of angry in a five foot bag. I’m also not jonesing to get myself killed.
This commenter, as others, was quick to point out that men get hit on by women all the time too. He’s missing the point. When it comes to matters of street harassment, and worse, the issue has very little to do with sex, and everything to do with power. There is small similarity between the truck full of men honking at me while I walk home alone and the two elderly ladies whistling at a shirtless man on his morning run. That man is not in danger. I am. Commentator-Fuckboy finished up his argument by saying that women often tell him that he can’t identify with their situation, because he’s not a woman. His response to this is ‘who cares how it feels, what matters is what you’re going to do about it.’
No. How it feels is fundamental. You, as a man, have never been forced into quick thinking about which side of the street is safer. You’ve never had to make up a fake name, when a man gets your face, demanding your attention. You have never been called an ice bitch or a cunt when you do your best to ignore. How it feels is the most important damn thing there is.
How does this relate to the romance novel world?
The romance novel is a safe space. For the most part, characters can be trusted, our heroines get out of trouble just in the nick of time, and the men, though sometimes appearing so at first, are usually not douchebags. Given, as illustrated above, that there are few places where women can truly feel safe, these books are a God send to the world of interpersonal relationships without the question of creep or not creep plaguing the back of your mind.
In the world of romance, the good guys are the good guys, and the cat callers and street harassers – and worse – get what’s coming to them. Crimes, like the incredibly underreported and miserably handled issue with sexual-violence in this country, are shored up and villains are brought to justice. Always.
There is also something to be said for a woman being her own hero. While romance novels are full of the alpha male trope of highlanders and Navy Seals, it is most often the actions of a heroine that allow her to save her own ass, or put her in a position where her ass can be saved. There is a power in the literary heroine, that we often do not feel in our every day.
In our real lives, we are confronted with a far different picture. But in Romance, it is the heroine’s voice who is listened to, the woman who is understood. For us, in those brief moments of respite, the world is safe.